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The Whiskey Rebellion

The Whiskey Rebellion (1794) originated in a dispute over the role of taxation in the United States.Many citizens of the new republic assumed that the Revolutionary War meant they would never be made to pay direct taxes to support a distant government. But Washington's secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, wanted to tax Americans to help finance the national debt and to support a relatively large national government. Hamilton's plan to override the parochialism of local authorities and to make the United States stable and prosperous prevailed in Congress, which passed an act (3 March 1791) creating an excise tax on spirits distilled in the United States. Opposition to the act was widespread, but centered in western Pennsylvania, where local politicians denounced the tax and citizens attacked it in public meetings. Opponents tarred and feathered tax collectors and their collaborators, including distillers who cooperated with federal officials.

In the summer of 1794, mounting tensions exploded. On 16 July, some 500 men attacked the home of Gen. John Neville, local inspector of the excise in Allegheny County. Neville and his household mounted a defense with the aid of a few regular soldiers, killing two men and wounding six others. When Neville and his men escaped, the attackers looted and burned his house. Emboldened, the insurgents called a meeting at Braddock's Field, southeast of Pittsburgh, for 1 August. Approximately 6,000 men attended. But after two days of talking about further resistance, they dispersed.

President George Washington refused to tolerate the escalating defiance of federal authority. On 7 August, he announced that he was calling out the militia to restore order and enforce the law. At the same time, he sent commissioners to western Pennsylvania to offer amnesty to the insurgents in return for oaths of submission to the United States. When that strategy failed, the president, on 25 September, ordered 12,950 militia and volunteers from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland to march to Pittsburgh. They arrested a handful of insurgents. Two were convicted of treason, but Washington later pardoned them. Many of the leaders simply fled.

If the Whiskey Rebellion had little military significance, its political importance was tremendous. It demonstrated the willingness of federal officials to use the potentially enormous power of the national government to enforce national law. Coupled with the American victory over the Indians of the Old Northwest in August 1794, the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion marked the emergence of the national government as a significant presence west of the Appalachians. On the other hand, the rebellion showed the depth of American citizens' hostility to central government intent upon taxing them and regulating their lives. This hostility was part of the more peaceful political rebellion that climaxed in the 1800 election of Thomas Jefferson as president. Under Jefferson, Congress repealed the Whiskey Tax.
[See also Commander in Chief, President as; Militia and National Guard.]

Bibliography

Thomas P. Slaughter , The Whiskey Rebellion, Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution, 1986.
Stanley Elkins and and Eric McKitrick , The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788–1800, 1993.

Andrew R. L. Cayton

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